Tag Archives: California

A Visit to Berkeley and San Francisco (December 2012)

27 Dec


My home base for this brief 3-day visit was the historic Claremont Hotel in the hills of Berkeley. What a beautiful property. The views off the back of the property were simply amazing. You could watch the sunset over the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF city skyline in the background. Stunning.


I arrived late and quite tired on the first night. I decided to stay close and dine at the hotel restaurant. The food turned out to be pretty good. I especially enjoyed the Gilroy Garlic Fries, but boy did my breath stink afterwards. Had to brush and rinse several times that evening. It was all well worth it.

napa smith

Napa Smith Lost Dog Ale was my beverage of choice that first night in town. It was mighty fine — and mighty powerful. The brew’s 7.2% alcohol content (I had 2) knocked me for a loop, especially after traveling all day. I decided to call it a day and head for the rack.


I was in Northern California for a conference, but was able to bust loose during a long lunch break one day for some exploring beyond the walls of the Claremont. I walked about a mile (pretty much all downhill) to the first signs of commercial and culinary civilization. The first spot of interest I encountered was the Star Grocery. A classic corner grocery updated for the modern age. It had something of a hippie, granola vibe to the place — totally what you would expect for Berkeley.

star bakery

Star’s bakery goods looked impressive. So much bread, so little time!


I ended up grabbing lunch at a place called Southie — a very hip little California bistro. The atmosphere was contemporary with a menu full of fresh and healthy local fare. My Roast Turkey with Applewood Bacon sandwich really hit the spot. The focaccia bread was obviously fresh and the sandwich was completed with locally grown romaine, sliced avocado, and a totally on-point rosemary aioli. It all was quickly polished off. It came with a bag of chips, but I chose not to consume them. I was saving room for the far more interesting treats that lay ahead.

nom nom

The next day was even better. The conference concluded before noon, so I bounded down the hill once again and grabbed the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) for San Francisco’s Financial District. Shortly after I got off the subway, I spotted the famous Nom Nom truck (best known from its time on Food Network’s THE GREAT FOOD TRUCK RACE). The line was rather lengthy, but I took a deep breath and plunged into the cue.

viet sand

Service was actually pretty swift and my Vietnamese sandwich (aka “Banh Mi”) was a tart, tangy joy. The price wasn’t bad either.  The pickled vegetables and green leaves of cilantro were a perfect match for the chunks of grilled chicken and the crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside bread loaf. I added a little bit of Sriracha for some added zip. It was a chilly day in the City By The Bay and the bright red condiment warmed me to the bone.

tadich ext

Determined to eat my way across town, my next stop was the Tadich Grill. It is also known as “The Original Cold Day Restaurant.” And now I know why. It is a warm, welcoming spot — a favorite in this town since 1849. All the restaurant seating was occupied, so I bellied up to the bar.

tadich nap

I ordered a bowl of chowder, a pint of Sierra Nevada, and took time to check the old place out. The servers look they they have all worked here for quite a while. Most were well north of 5o years old and all were decked out in classic white smocks. My bespeckled bar attendant was super friendly and very attentive. He even gave me some strong touring tips — the best one being to avoid walking the city’s steep hills and to purchase a day pass for the cable car system.  Thank you, sir!


My Clam Chowder (New England style) was rich and creamy, the brew just the right flavor note and temperature. Yet it was the bread served alongside my soup bowl that was the real revelation at this stop. My server told me the rustic looking loaf was baked daily by the legendary Boudin Bakery of San Francisco. He added that it was a proprietary recipe only sold to area restaurants and not the same as the Boudin Sourdough bread found all over town and in the local airport gift shops. My day was humming along nicely.

china ext

My next stop on the trolley line was Chinatown.


Chinatown is nice for sightseeing. I was tempted, but not ready to eat again.


After wandering about Chinatown for a half hour or so, I jumped on board a cable car headed for the intersection of California & Polk. The trolleys are a great way to get around town — even on a brisk day. I chose to sit in the car’s open air seating to get the full ambiance of city sights, sounds, and smells. A bum approached me for some money and I was in such a good mood that I flipped him a couple bucks and wished him a Merry Christmas.


The Swan Oyster Depot was featured in Tony Bourdain’s The Layover TV series.


Their display of fresh local seafood lured me inside.

swan cala

The marinated squid salad looked like something out of a Japanese horror flick. But it tasted like the gastronomical equivalent of a Shiatsu massage. That alone should have been enough. The accompanying Anchor Steam beer and more fresh-baked Boudin bread had my taste buds singing like another famous Tony — Tony Bennett.


Later that same evening, I met up with my childhood friend, Colin Jewell (pictured above). Colin and I had not seen one another in over 40 years (yes, we’re old). I believe I was about 10 years old or so the last time we crossed paths. We grabbed a beer or two and started catching up at the Tadich Grill. The reunion continued over a great Greek meal at Kokkari, an Italian biscotti in the North Shore neighborhood, and a nightcap (“Surfer’s Punch”) at the world famous Tiki bar known as the Tonga Room.


The “room” (shown in picture above) is actually cavernous and includes a full-size swimming pool as a focal point. Precisely timed thunder and lightning cracks are occasionally heard over the Tonga Room’s sound system. That is immediately followed by a faux tropical rainfall that is thankfully confined to just the pool and not the bar tables and hightops along the periphery. Pretty cool, huh?  


And yes, I did end up buying some Boudin sourdough bread to take back to Alabama. Sure, it’s a very touristy thing to do. It is also a very wise thing to do. The bread in the SF Bay Area  is truly amazing. Foodies who live around here are extremely fortunate. As for me, I’ll soon be inquiring about any Bread of the Month Clubs that might exist for poor suckers like me who can only visit once in a blue moon. What a wonderful town San Francisco is. I may not have left my heart there, but I surely left my bread  there.

Pistachio Warning

1 Apr


TERRA BELLA, Calif. — It could take weeks before health officials know exactly which pistachio products may be tainted with salmonella, but they’ve already issued a sweeping warning to avoid eating the nuts or foods containing them.

The move appears to indicate a shift in how the government handles food safety issues — from waiting until contaminated foods surface one-by-one and risking that more people fall ill to jumping on the problem right away, even if the message is vague.

Officials wouldn’t say if the approach was in response to any perceived mishandling of the massive peanut recall that started last year, only that they’re trying to keep people from getting sick as new details surface about the California plant at the center of the pistachio scare.

“What’s different here is that we are being very proactive and are putting out a broad message with the goal of trying to minimize the likelihood of consumer exposure,” said Dr. David Acheson, FDA’s assistant commissioner for food safety. “The only logical advice to consumers is to say ‘OK consumers, put pistachios on hold while we work this out. We don’t want you exposed, we don’t want you getting salmonella.'”

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the president’s new acting commissioner who started Monday, made it clear staff needed to move quickly, Acheson said.

The agency announced Monday that Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., the second-largest pistachio processor in the nation, recalled more than 2 million pounds of its roasted pistachios.

Suspect nuts were shipped as far away as Norway and Mexico, Acheson said Tuesday. One week after authorities first learned of the problem, they still had little idea what products were at risk, he said.

As federal health inspectors take swabs inside the plant to try to identify a salmonella source, a whole range of products from nut bars to ice cream and cake mixes remain in limbo on grocery shelves.

Company officials said Tuesday they suspected their roasted pistachios may have been contaminated by salmonella-tainted raw nuts they were processed with at the hulking facility.

Roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria in nuts. But problems can occur if the roasting is not done correctly or if roasted nuts are re-exposed to bacteria.

The firm sells its California-grown pistachios to giants of the food industry such as Kraft Foods Inc., as well as 36 wholesalers across the country.

“We care about our business and our customers greatly,” said Lee Cohen, the production manager for Setton International Foods Inc., a sister company to Setton Pistachios. “We’ve never had an illness complaint before but obviously this affects the whole industry. It’s not good.”

California supplies 99.99 percent of the U.S. pistachio market, according to the California Pistachio Board.

“What’s scary is that it’s after the nuts have been processed that this stuff is getting into it, so it really makes you wonder,” said Marcia Rowland, an avid pistachio eater in Apopka, Fla.

The FDA learned about the problem March 24, when Kraft notified the agency that routine product testing had detected salmonella in roasted pistachios. Kraft and the Georgia Nut Co. recalled their Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix the next day and expanded the recall to include any Planters and Back to Nature products that contain pistachios Tuesday.

Kraft spokeswoman Laurie Guzzinati said her company’s auditors visited the plant early last week, and “observed employee practices where raw and roasted nuts were not adequately segregated and that could explain the sporadic contamination.”

She said she didn’t know specifically what they saw.

Federal inspectors last visited the plant in 2003, and the California Department of Public Health was there last year, Acheson said. Federal officials made note of several problems — an open door into one of the nut rooms, and an employee wearing street clothes that weren’t adequately covered — but nothing that posed a food safety threat, he said.

Acheson said management corrected the problems that day, and said he did not have access to California inspectors’ records.

Cohen said the plant had never had an illness complaint, followed industry health guidelines and had its huge metal silos and warehouse inspected regularly, but refused to provide additional details or records. Several plaques on the firm’s office walls showed the firm won industry awards for food safety excellence.

No illness have been tied to contaminated pistachios. Two people called the FDA complaining of gastrointestinal illness that could be associated with the nuts, but the link hasn’t been confirmed, Acheson said.

While consumer advocates praised the government’s swift action, they said the pistachio recall illustrated that more oversight was needed.

“It is encouraging that this response was so quick, but we need to move to a system that focuses on prevention through the entire food production process,” said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health.

Two California legislators introduced a bill Tuesday that would require periodic testing of food at food processing facilities and mandate processors to report to state authorities within 24 hours any positive test result for a dangerous contaminant.

“We shouldn’t be reacting to the next crisis, we should be preventing the next crisis,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles.

Los Angelinos Fighting to Save Taco Trucks

12 Mar

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles, loath to rally cohesively around a local cause, has joined hands around tortillas.

A new county ordinance restricting taco trucks has outraged food bloggers, construction workers, residents of East Los Angeles accustomed to plopping down in a folding chair, taco in one hand, nonalcoholic sangria in the other, as well as members of the taco-loving public willing to drive 15 miles for the best carnitas.

Nearly 5,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the new law at saveourtacotrucks.org, where “carne asada is not a crime.” Enraged taco cart proprietors are defiant; some have hired lawyers. On Thursday, people flocked to taco trucks in support.

This a place where you can pave over a freeway’s carpool lanes with toll roads, and few will complain. You can propose a 40-story skyrise in the center of Hollywood, and hardly anyone two miles to the west will take notice. You can squander public money, close down the ports and flatten landmarks, and many residents of this sprawling metropolis will simply yawn and move on.

But this is also a food-obsessed city with rich Hispanic cultural traditions, and tacos have crossed the miles of road and class divides.

“Taco trucks are iconic here,” said Aaron Sonderleiter, a teacher from the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and one of the petition founders. “You go to one and you see black, people, white people, old people, young people. They really capture a microcosm of L.A.”

Violations of the old rules, which allow food vendors to remain in a location for 30 minutes, are mere infractions, and in any case the rules are seldom enforced. But under the new ordinance, which goes into effect next week, taco carts would be required to change location every hour, with violators facing fines, misdemeanor charges and, possibly, jail time. County officials say the change comes at the behest of residents who find the carts eyesores, and some restaurant owners who feel undermined by the price-chopping ways of their mobile competition.

“They are a blight,” said Omar Loya of East Los Angeles who took his complaints about the trucks to the office of his county supervisor, Gloria Molina.

Ms. Molina’s policy director, Gerry Hertzberg, said the trucks had become “a big quality of life issue” in some neighborhoods.

“Businesses with a fixed place of business complain about unfair competition and the spillover effects mobile vendors have on the surrounding area,” Mr. Hertzberg said, citing litter, noise, public urination and excessive parking space hoarding as typical complaints.

The new restrictions apply to the county’s unincorporated areas, of which East Los Angeles, which lies just east of downtown, is the most populated. In this dominantly Hispanic neighborhood, taco trucks — and their culinary cousins, fresh fruit vendors — are the curbside pizza storefronts of New York.

At night, some serve as social centers, where communities gather to listen to music and chow down. Some trucks — loncheras — are adorned with names or artwork that signifies the region of Mexico that the vendor hails from, and the food served often also has a regional distinction.

Far faster and far cheaper than restaurants, they are a favorite for day laborers, poor families and cheap dates.

“In my case I have 30 minutes for lunch,” said Carlos Baptista, a construction worker eating a fish taco last week. “And when I only have $4 in my pocket, it is more cheaper than restaurants.”

Under the new ordinance, trucks in a commercial zone will have an hour to sit; those in a residential area will still have to leave after 30 minutes, but in much of East Los Angeles, commercial and residential are one. After the allotted time, a vendor would have to move at least one half mile from the location, and not return for three hours. The district attorney may also charge taco flouters with a misdemeanor, and fines will increase from $60 to $100 dollars for first violation, increasing to a cap of $500.

The City of Los Angeles already has similar restrictions, but they have been uncontroversial because they are rarely enforced; a law regulating food trucks in the city was enforced 28 times last year, according to the police. Efforts to restrict the vendors have met resistance in other cities, as well.

Several taco truck owners last week said they had heard of the law change and were displeased.

“We are hard workers and we pay taxes,” said Jose Naranjo, who has been selling fish and shrimp tacos from his truck in East Los Angeles since 1989. “We are poor people feeding other poor people.”

Mr. Hertzberg said the current county law was enforced roughly “150 times a year,” although Henry Romero, the captain of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s East Los Angeles station, said they had not issued a summons in four years. (Mr. Hertzberg later said that he was referring to 2004, during which one violator was fined 60 times.)

Law enforcement officials say the new ordinance has clearer language that will make enforcement easier.

“Is it one of my primary goals?” Captain Romero said. “Put it this way: We will enforce it when we get complaints from the community.”

Several restaurant owners in East Los Angeles, when asked about the taco trucks, shrugged. “What they do is different,” said Bernardo Garcia, who owns three restaurants.

But there are plenty who disagree.

“A lot of these food trucks are not from our community, they make money in our community but do not give back to the community,” said Lourdes Caracoza, the president of Maravilla Business Association, which covers a small section of East Los Angeles. “People say this is part of our culture. I don’t recall any towns in Mexico having taco trucks.”